Let me take you back to Kowloon East in the 1960s. The sun is high in the sky and the streets are bustling with unstoppable activity. You walk past a factory where cars are made, clothes are knitted, blacksmiths do metal work and newspapers are printed all at the same time. Ships pull into the docks, people systematically load, unload. The air smells like salt – sweat and the sea.
The sky is dense and smoky, black fading into gray, like the grime on people’s fingertips as they lift boxes, push carts, thread needles into wool. They work with their heads down, like there is no tomorrow, because at the time, this was Hong Kong’s tomorrow.
The years pass and the haphazard scene fades into white office blocks and business models. Hong Kong’s industrial heritage becomes lost, encased in a vignette of black and white, reverted to the untouchable past.
As the industrial scene fades, so does Kowloon East. Once the heart of Hong Kong’s industry, its buildings empty out and lapse into obscurity. But in 2012, a new chapter unfolds, and it becomes the site of something new.
What is Energizing Kowloon East?
In his 2011-12 Policy Address, the Chief Executive announced that we would adopt a visionary, co-ordinated and integrated approach to transform Kowloon East… into an attractive central business district (CBD) to sustain Hong Kong’s long-term economic development.
– Secretary for Development, Mr Mak Chai-kwong, in a 2012 press release
“Energizing Kowloon East” is a redevelopment scheme that aims to turn Kowloon East into Hong Kong’s second business district. The geographical region that this scheme covers includes the former Kai Tak airport, the Kwun Tong Business Area, Kowloon Bay Business Area, and San Po Kong.
Formerly an industrial centerpoint, Kowloon East was disused after the late 1970s, as manufacturers moved to the Mainland for better pricing, creating many abandoned buildings.
However, Hong Kong’s financial, business and service industries developed, these buildings became sites of creative entrepreneurial spirit, fostering the development of small businesses and creative industries.
The “Energizing Kowloon East” scheme aims to advance this initial success, by turning Kowloon East into a business district. The buildings would be turned into office space, and the neighborhood would be re-paved into a lively, aesthetically-pleasing environment, for a better living experience.
Overall, the scheme aims to advance Kowloon East into a city ahead of its time, making it a vital part of Hong Kong’s operations once again.
How did it begin?
When the “Energizing Kowloon East” was launched in the 2011-2012 Policy Address, different stakeholders had high expectations of this redevelopment scheme. The Development Bureau gathered several experts including historians, architects, artists, and engineers, and set up the Energizing Kowloon East Office shortly. The office did different studies on the manufacturing industry and industrial development history of Kowloon East and decided to translate its unique features into urban design guidelines and integrate them into the creative design.
For instance, they started the “Sharing Memoirs and Extending Legacy in Transforming Kowloon East” campaign in March 2013. It aimed to ask the public to share stories, artifacts, and photos associated with Kowloon East with the office.
In September 2012, the exhibition “Inter-Cities/Intra Cities: Ghostwriting the Future” which showcased the main “Energizing Kowloon East” initiatives was held in Venice and Hong Kong. It showed how Kowloon East would be transformed into a vibrant city sector. It was named one of the top 5 displays at the 13th Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition by the British publication Architect’s Journal.
We hope to transform Kai Tak, Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay into a superior commercial district through the “Energizing Kowloon East” scheme within 10 years.
– Donald Tsang, former Chief Executive of Hong Kong
Four major key projects
The overall goals for “Energizing Kowloon East” aim to be achieved through four main projects – ‘Enhancing Connectivity, Walkability and Mobility’, ‘Developing a Smart, Green and Resilient CBD’, ‘Ensuring Sustainable Growth’, and ‘Promoting the “Spirit of Creation”’.
Enhance Connectivity, Walkability and Mobility
Enhancing connectivity, walkability and mobility is one of the major emphases in the scheme. The EKEO has implemented several strategies to improve the pedestrian facilities, whilst walkability is the most concerning part of this stream. It is not only about how convenient it can be for people to walk or travel from place to place, it is also about enjoyability.
Pedestrian facilities with a high walkability index tend to be well-planned to cater to different needs and make people feel enjoyable. For instance, walkability index can be increased by improving the safety of pedestrians with the transformation of pedestrian facilities, or putting cultural design at subways or footbridges and serve them as destinations. Safe and well-designed facilities are relatively enjoyable. Here are some ongoing and finished works about enhancing the connectivity and walkability in Kowloon East.
To better promote the concept of “Walkable Kowloon East”, the EKEO also launched the mobile app @MyKE in 2016. The Easy Walking function is developed with the 3D pedestrian network. Users can use the way-finding function to find indoor, outdoor, sheltered, or even clean air walking routes according to their needs.
Although the EKEO has placed a lot of effort into improving Kowloon East’s walkability, some effective plans are suspended. The EKEO planned to construct an Environmentally Friendly Linkage System for Kowloon East within the commercial area. It was regarded as an innovative plan when it was announced in the 2011-2012 Policy Address as it can provide a fast and enjoyable way for people to travel within the crowded Kowloon East. However, the construction was regarded as having low economic benefits. Also, it may cause potential fire danger between Hoi Yuen Road and Kwun Tong MTR Station. Thus, the construction was forced to terminate in 2020.
Developing a Smart, Green and Resilient CBD
“Developing a Smart, Green and Resilient CBD” is another emphasis proposed in the Conceptual Master Plan 6.0, in which Kwun Tong Promenade has been one of the most noteworthy projects that constitute the green environment in Kowloon East. The Kwun Tong Promenade, which has a total area of over four hectares, was implemented in two stages for public enjoyment of the harbour-front.
About 1 km in length, it provides visitors with not only close-up views of Kai Tak Cruise Terminal but also splendid night views of Victoria Harbour. In fact, Kwun Tong Promenade is a landscaped area which is surrounded by multi-purpose lawn and trees. Considering the environmental aspect, the buildings there are also made of steel, glass and wire mesh materials to help with ventilation. Occasionally, the mist will even emit from the floor in summer to achieve a cooling effect. Thus, it is believed that the design concept of the Kwun Tong Promenade was well-planned and intended to transform Kowloon East into a green CBD2.
Nevertheless, the process of developing a smart, green and resilient CBD was not plain sailing. For instance, building a 1.3 km elevated walkway was once suggested to provide a convenient pedestrian corridor in Kowloon Bay and form a smart travelers network. However, it was ultimately suspended due to commercial considerations and being on hold until now.
Ensuring Sustainable Growth
Moving on to the emphasis on “ensuring sustainable growth,” the Revitalization Scheme for Industrial Buildings is another highlight to increase the supply of commercial floor space. In order to transform itself into a Core Business District, supplying a steady and adequate number of quality offices has long been a goal for Kowloon East for many years. In April 2010, the government first introduced measures to revitalize industrial buildings in Hong Kong. Some of the industrial buildings in Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay were therefore redeveloped or converted into offices, shops, or hotels under the policy. Examples include “Koho” and “The Mark” in Kwun Tong. Indeed, some of the industrial premises in Hong Kong have not been optimally utilized, or even infiltrated by incompatible non-industrial uses due to economic restructuring.
Considering the sustainable aspect, the Revitalization Scheme for Industrial Buildings incentivises the market to optimize the existing industrial stock. Moreover, it encourages people to make better use of valuable land resources and address more effectively the issues of fire safety and non-compliant uses. Hence, it is believed that the revitalization scheme helps to maintain sustainable growth in Kowloon East.
Promoting the “Spirit of Creation”
The scheme aimed to promote creation through integrating art installations into the making of green spaces, whilst also wanting to promote Kwun Tong’s history as an industrial hub.
One of the main elements of this project was the renovation of Tsun Yip Street Playground. Originally built in 1973 for Kwun Tong’s industrial workers, it was rebuilt into an open-air exhibition center and an outdoor space for musical performances and other communal activities. There are many art installations featured, and the exhibits are made from recycled freight containers, displaying sustainability and innovation.
Aside from this, many other miniature initiatives were put into place to beautify the city, such as the Back Alley Project and the Flyover art murals. These turn Kowloon East’s streets into an amalgam of artistic expression and cultural value.
Above is a gallery of Energizing Kowloon East’s creative ventures.
What is the current landscape of Kowloon East?
Stakeholders’ opinions on the transformations
Walkability: Enjoyable or not?
For walkability, we need to concern about both connectivity and enjoyability. Undoubtedly, the connectivity of Kowloon East has improved a lot through the strategies mentioned previously. Its achievements have also been widely recognized by experts and the legislative council.
Phyllis Li, the former Deputy Director of Planning/Territorial of the Planning Department said, “the provision of additional footbridges linking the private sector shows that the private sector follows the pedestrian network on the masterplan, so definitely it helps the connectivity.”
Frankie Ngan, a member of the legislative council (Kowloon East) has similar opinions. He said, “the EKEO and the Highways Department have put a lot of effort to replan and reconstruct the road to connect the hinterland in Kowloon East.” He also mentioned that nearly all the goals set in 2012 (the year when the “Energizing Kowloon East” began) for improving connectivity have already been reached so far.
Nevertheless, residents and experts express reservations about the enjoyability.
Edward is a resident of Kwun Tong and the founder of Kwun Tong News, which is an Instagram account for the community newsapaper《觀》in Kwun Tong. When asked about Kwun Tong’s walkability, he said, “walking in Kwun Tong is not enjoyable, as it is way too crowded to enjoy walking when compared with other districts.”
This is actually supported by a walkability report published by Dr. Sun Yi, an Associate Professor with the Department of Building and Real Estate at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. In this report, Kwun Tong’s walkability score is around 6-7/10, 1 being the least walkable and 10 being the most.
The EKEO aims to develop Kowloon East as a Central Business District 2. However, the walkability within the original CBD, Central, is rated 9-10 out of 10. In comparison, the walkability in Kowloon East has quite a long way to go.
Moreover, busy traffic and severe congestion are other factors that make walking in Kowloon East undesirable.
“We still have the operation of industrial activities, but at the same time you have some additional business activities, so road traffic congestion is quite a problem in this EKE area,” Li agreed.
Due to the heavy traffic in Kowloon East, carbon emission and noise pollution from the vehicles is undesirable for serving the “place” function.
Creative Perspective: Opportunity or Restriction?
Over the past 10 years, the impact towards the creative industries following the development of Kowloon East has received the most polarized opinions.
Some believed that the scheme has given opportunities to artists and designers by involving them in co-creating places. For example, since the early stage, the EKEO has been holding activities like Kai Tak Fantasy, Back Alley Project as well as City Dress-up Public Art Competition ‘Flyover Fantasy’ for creators to showcase their talents. Pantone C., whose artwork was demonstrated near the Kwun Tong Fire Station 6 years ago, is also one of the partnering artists involved in the Back Alley Project.
He thinks that the scheme gave enough creative space for him to do the graffiti.
“I don’t think the scheme harmed the originality of my artwork because I found the instructions given by them acceptable,” C said. “I think the scheme can be regularised…since it’s hard to do creations in Kwun Tong but it can act as a medium to negotiate with different parties, which provides more public spaces for us to do arts.”
On the other hand, some opinions suggest that the development of Kowloon East has prompted a surge in rents, which made some art studios to throw a lease. According to the statistics given by the Legislative council, the rents of industrial buildings have increased from $40,000/m2 to $65,000/m2 in Kowloon East after lease modification in recent years. In fact, “Energizing Kowloon East” has transformed Kwun Tong District from an industrial area into a complex area of industry and commerce. Therefore, many businesses moved into the area, resulting in a sharp rise in rents and a hardship for art studios to survive there.
District councilor Frankie Ngan Man-yu shares similar views, believing that some artists may not be able to afford the increased rent.
“I think the impact towards the artists is a double-edged sword,” Ngan said. “The Energizing Kowloon East did provide more spaces for artists and musicians to perform but it is undeniable that some of the independent artists are forced to leave Kwun Tong and moved to San Po Kong or Tai Po due to the rising rents.”
Merging the Industrial and Commercial areas
Another aspect of the scheme that is important in its success, is the feasibility of upholding different functionalities within the same piece of land. Kwun Tong was originally an industrial area, so its roads, aesthetics, and buildings are catered towards efficiency and vehicle mobility. In its initial planning stages, there wasn’t much thought put into making Kwun Tong a nice place to experience.
Phyllis Li who formerly worked with the Planning Department said that considering the social aspect of an area is very important in ensuring the success of urban planning.
“We talk about place-making, that is to create new space… that people identify and associate with. There is also place management, where you have to create activities, you can’t just build the hardware,” Li says.
Li mentions that scheme has had some successful attempts to undergo place management, citing decorations and annual events.
“I think last year in Mid Autumn Festival they tried to promote events along the waterfront, with the decorations. Also every year there are some marathons and back link revitalization. These sorts of things with the local open spaces make the area more people-centric,” she said.
Aside from this, often, redevelopment schemes always have the threat of losing the original culture and essence of the area, which may garner negative feedback from residents. Li mentioned that the scheme attempted to solve this by retaining Hong Kong’s industrial heritage in its new designs.
“On heritage conservation, when they develop new spaces, they would review the design, the industrial heritage of the area and for example some more significant spaces, like the flour mill, the features are highlighted in the new design,” Li says.
Edward from Kwun Tong News has also observed this development, but doesn’t seem to have any strong feelings towards it.
“Kwun Tong used to be well known as an ‘old district’ filled with hawkers or old style shops,” Edward recalled. “Then starting with new malls including APM, commercialisation rushed through Kwun Tong while the ‘old Kwun Tong’ was pushed away from the central area.”
However, he doesn’t seem to mind the development. Instead, he wishes that more developments can be done to facilitate a better living experience.
“Kowloon East is convenient and is a well structured community, with a relatively low living cost in Hong Kong, but it’s also crowded and lacks entertainment. So it could be a nice or intolerable living environment, depending on a person’s lifestyle.”
– Edward, founder of Kwun Tong News
How it continues?
Stepping into the tenth year of the “Energizing Kowloon East” project, it is believed that this scheme is progressing smoothly. However, it may still need some time to achieve the four main goals — “Enhancing Connectivity, Walkability and Mobility,” “Developing a Smart, Green and Resilient CBD,” “Ensuring Sustainable Growth,” and “Promoting the ‘Spirit of Creation.” Some of the achievements of this scheme are notable in recent years, but the plan still has many shortcomings, including sharp rises in rents and severe traffic congestion.
As far as we know, the “Invigorating Island South” was also launched in 2020 following the “success” of the “Energizing Kowloon East”. This new project hopes to develop the Southern District into a place that is full of vibrancy and favorable for people to work and live. Let’s keep an eye on their results in the future!
Featured image: Carmen Ho